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April 2024

Rise Of The Ronin

Platform(s): PlayStation 5
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Developer: Team Ninja
Release Date: March 22, 2024


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PS5 Review - 'Rise of the Ronin'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on March 21, 2024 @ 4:00 a.m. PDT

Rise of the Rōnin is an action RPG that takes you on an epic and unfettered journey as a Ronin at the dawn of a new era in Japan.

Buy Rise of the Ronin

Sometimes it feels impossible to avoid comparing two games. That's a problem that Rise of the Ronin runs into, as it is inevitably going to be compared to a similar Sony-published samurai/stealth game, Ghost of Tsushima. At its heart, Rise of the Ronin is more focused on raw gameplay mechanics than the story and character. Is that to its benefit? Yes and no.

Rise of the Ronin is set in the tumultuous time period in Japan's history when Admiral Perry's Black Ships have come to Japan, and the isolated nation is opening up to foreign trade. You take control of a member of the Veiled Edge, elite warriors who train in pairs. You and your partner sneak onboard the ships with a plan to assassinate the admiral, but you're caught off guard. Your partner is left behind as you're forced to escape — and discover that your clan has been butchered. Alone and masterless, you set out to find the only link to your former life: your missing Veiled Edge partner.

Rise of the Ronin's plot is rather disjointed. It throws you into the middle of a historical era and assumes that you have some basic understanding of the world and setting; it's fine if you do have the background, but it's probably incoherent if you don't. Historical figure after historical figure is thrown at you, and then they disappear. Your main character's plot is frustrating, as people refuse to explain things, make vague comments, and vanish so often that I promptly began to wonder if finding the lost Veiled Edge was worth the trouble.

The game does have a lot of characters with their own plotlines and friendships, and while most are fairly basic, they lend some depth to the adventure. You're occasionally given the chance to make a choice at the turning point of history, which sounds bigger than it is. Sometimes this leads to new events, and other times, you'll spare someone only to have another character come in and kill them five seconds later with a slightly different cut scene. It's a neat feature, but this isn't a game you play for the plot.

The big shift from other recent Team Ninja games is that it is an open-world game. Once you get past the early tutorial segments, you're free to explore the world at your leisure, including the now-obligatory glider to smoothly travel over long distances. Ronin actually has multiple open-world areas to explore, with the shift happening once certain plots events occur. You can use an in-game method of time travel to go back to the earlier areas if you want to finish side-quests or visit characters who died as part of the plot.

One of Rise of the Ronin's biggest issues is that it is way, way too slow to get going. The earliest hours of the game paint the worst possible impression. The low difficulty, small variety of things to do, and general tone make the title feel like a cut-rate Ghost of Tsushima. I felt extremely negative about it when I compared it to the Nioh titles that it most resembled, as it traded the intense and punishing Soulslike combat for something that felt dumbed-down and boring.

It took much longer than it should have for the game to get engaging. The combat is at its best when you're feeling overwhelmed, the side-quests are most fun when they have some bite, and the mechanics and design don't really come together until you're far into the game — arguably farther than I would've gotten if I weren't obligated. I imagine a lot of people are going to bounce off Rise of the Ronin before it shows off its best elements.

Combat is clearly based on Nioh and Wo Long. The combat mechanics are simple. You have a basic attack, which can also be charged up by holding down the button, as well as martial moves, which are special attacks that drain Ki, your stamina bar. Each weapon type has distinct attributes and different combat styles that you can swap between. That doesn't just impact what your attacks are strong or weak against, but it also dictates which martial moves you can access.

One sword style provides reliable fast attacks, while another (based on Ninja Gaiden) is built around counterattacks and stunning enemies so you can Inazuma Drop them. A third sword style encourages you to let enemies attack so you can use martial arts to appear behind them for a special attack. Sabers have styles based on U.S. Military (powerful attacks) or English Military (fast attacks that incorporate daggers). You also have a variety of subweapons that can be worked into combat. These include bows and arrows, shuriken, handguns, rifles, and even a flamethrower. These all have limited uses, which are restored at save points but can often turn the tide of battle in your favor.

Most important is your Counterspark. When an enemy attacks, you can press a button to try to parry their attack. This can be done at any time, including while blocking, and different styles have different kinds of Countersparks. If you manage to parry the last blow of an enemy's attack, they will get briefly panicked, leaving them vulnerable and open to an attack. However, if you parry multiple blows in a row or parry an enemy's powerful attack, the enemy will be panicked longer. Of course, mess that up, and you eat a sword to the face. A panicked enemy also loses more Ki when attacked, and once an enemy loses all their Ki, they are vulnerable to critical blows.

This turns basic swordplay into an interesting back and forth, where it's key to clash swords while parrying enemy attacks, managing your Ki, and keeping the enemy on the defensive. Blocking and attacking drains Ki, but if you strike enemies, your blade gradually becomes coated with blood, and you can use a Blade Flash to clean it off, which also restores a huge chunk of your Ki. It's similar to the mechanic in Nioh but more limited, encouraging you to wait for the right moment to refill your Ki.

This system works amazingly well during boss battles and fights against strong enemies, which are a highlight of Rise of the Ronin. As mentioned before, it requires getting through enough of the game to reach that point. It's a lot less fun against weaker enemies, where it feels button-mashy. It absolutely works best when the game is going all out, especially in situations where you're fighting multiple tough enemies at once.

This goes double for the stealth mechanics. Similar to Ghost of Tsushima, you have the option to go in quietly and gradually pick off enemies. You start with the standard "get behind an enemy and press a button to assassinate them" mechanic but gradually unlock new tools like air assassination, grappling hook assassinations, and more. Standard enemies can be killed in a single hit while formidable foes will lose a chunk of their HP. (Thankfully, dogs can just be petted so they go to sleep or join you in combat.)

This stealth becomes more important later on as enemies get tougher. You'll encounter enemy bases that have multiple enemies, including leaders who buff allies. While it's entirely possible to stab your way through, the later game bases can be pretty difficult, and trying to take them on solo will mean your Countersparks need to be on point. The shift between stealth and combat feels good, arguably better than in Ghost of Tsushima, and it's a shame that it takes the game so long to get there. Once you're effortlessly swapping between foes, bouncing between combat stances, parrying attacks and beating the crud out of enemies, it feels great. In the later parts of the game, a few enemy attacks can almost drain your health in a single go, so there is genuine tension, as opposed to most open-world games, where later tends to mean far easier.

Outside of combat, Ronin has a fair number of things to keep players busy. There are questlines where you have to complete combat challenges, gamble, take photographs, and find an absurd number of adorable cats. Each questline not only grants items and equipment but also precious stat boosts that power the character and allow you to unlock more skills. Some also play into each other. Collecting cats, for example, means you can send the cats to people who want a cat, and in exchange, they'll grant rewards.

Multiplayer is absolutely a factor in Ronin, but it isn't quite open-world co-op. AI versions of other players' characters appear in the world in a variety of situations. You may encounter them walking along the road, held hostage by bandits, engaged in their own fights, or you might run into their adorable dogs. Helping (or fighting) them earns rewards based on their chosen fighting style and equipment.

True multiplayer occurs in the missions, which are more self-contained story sequences that are closer to the older Team Ninja style with more confined areas, distinct boss fights, and greater challenges. If you don't want to play multiplayer, you can bring along one of a huge selection of characters to fight alongside you, can be directly controlled, and grant different buffs and debuffs.

One area that Rise of the Ronin fails to shine is visually. While the character creator is robust, most of the character models look basic and unimpressive, and the environments are drab. Fortunately, combat looks fantastic, and it's clear a ton of effort was put into making the busy fights run smoothly, but it does come at a cost to visual fidelity elsewhere. It isn't so distracting that the game is unplayable, but it certainly isn't showing off the PS5's power. Alas, the voice acting is just not good. It's cheesy and ridiculous and frequently sounds like an old-fashioned movie dub, which might be the intention but further drags down an already disjointed story.

Rise of the Ronin really demands that you give it a fair go. It starts off slow and takes a while to get running. Once it does, it's quite fun, with engaging and exciting combat that feels more demanding and intense than I'm used to from an open-world game. It's a big investment up front to find out if the game works for you, and enjoying previous Team Ninja games doesn't necessarily guarantee that you will.

Score: 8.0/10

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